In the fertile highlands of Malaya (now part of Malaysia), a woman named Yun Ling Teoh, seeking solace and driven by a desire to erect a memorial to her sister who was killed by Japanese soldiers during the occupation of her country, encounters the work of Aritomo Nakamura, a highly revered Japanese landscape designer.
Although still harboring the painful memories of war, she accepts an offer to become Aritomo’s apprentice, and within his “garden of evening mists,” Yun Ling finds herself in thrall to the almost mystic power of the garden. Over the course of the narrative, however, Yun Ling is also drawn deeper into her own country’s disturbing history.
Much of the novel revolves around the plausibility of resolving conflicting emotions, as Yun Ling, a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp survivor who lost two fingers during an interrogation session, is drawn in by Aritomo’s philanthropic nature and mastery of garden art, qualities that seem to transcend his nation’s crimes. The compassion of the older Japanese man, in stark contrast to repressive practices that occurred during the occupation, place the sensibilities of art against the brutalities of war.
The events of the story are retold almost 40 years after they occurred, as Yun Ling prepares for her retirement after presiding as a judge in Malaysia’s Supreme Court. She has decided to devote the remaining years of her life to restoring the garden, but given the differences in climate, topography, soil and flora, it requires exceptional skill to create a Japanese garden in her home country, and the authenticity of the garden is a testament to Aritomo’s mastery of form.
As Aritomo’s apprentice, Yun Ling is initiated into the wisdom of the Sakuteiki, an 11th-century Japanese garden manual. Circulated secretly among master gardeners, the book concerns itself with geomancy, the correct siting of stones, the circulation of water and the disposition of landscape. The manual, quoted in the novel, begins with the line, “Obey the request of the stone.” In a world where every object in nature is animate, guidance on placement is sought from individual rocks. Following the “request” of rocks and water flows indicates the idea of matter as organic and sentient. The idea, as Yun Ling discovers during her apprenticeship, is to create a garden that appears as if it has always existed. In this manner of creating a harmonious aesthetic rather than an imposed one, nature is transmuted into art.
Complex and deeply moving, Tan Twan Eng’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a near-perfect work of mesmerizing beauty. There are some errors in garden terminology — the misspelling of karesansui (dry landscape garden) and the common mistake of confusing lotuses and water lilies — but these are quibbles that do not take away from the lyrical sublimity and emotional scope of the novel.
In a world ravaged as much by haunting memories as the physical debris of war, the final pages of the book offer glimmers of hope. The narrator surmises that even the horrors and discordant threads of history and memory will achieve an eventual closure of sorts. “Slowly and surely,” she concludes, “the turbulent heart will soon also come to a stillness, the quiet stillness it has been beating towards all its life.”